Vital Signs is a weekly economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies.
This week: There is more to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos than celebrities and ski resorts.
The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss resort town of Davos has become a bit like the Academy Awards. There are lots of celebrities and lots of publicity, but there are legitimate questions about the substance of the whole enterprise.
Is the whole thing a palaver? Actually, no.
The theme this year is Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World – and it reflects legitimate concerns about the breakdown of international institutions.
The institutions that have guided the post-World War II era are under threat from both the left and the right. US President Donald Trump has decried institutions like the United Nations and threatened to withhold funding.
In his campaign he railed against NATO – a vital alliance that has underpinned European security for decades. His nativist agenda, with its America First slogan, is seen by many as a major threat the entire apparatus of international cooperation.
Yet a newly energised and combative left also decry many of these institutions as pushing a “neoliberal” agenda. The hero of the American left, Bernie Sanders, went as far as to blame the International Monetary Fund for the Greek debt crisis. And Britain’s putative Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn has widespread contempt for the international financial order, even agreeing with the accusation that he is “a bigger threat than Brexit”.
It is unlikely that this clash of ideologies is going to be solved this week. But against this backdrop, there is a more traditional international game being played: lobbying for national interests and positioning for national advantage.
US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin declared that the US “is open for business”, and according to administration officials, Trump will purportedly say similar things when he attends on Friday.
Enter the large Australian delegation at Davos this year. It includes Finance Minister Matthias Cormann and Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, who will be representing Australia’s trade and investment interests. As Cormann put it:
The World Economic Forum is one of the best, most efficient opportunities to engage over a very short period, in one single location, with a very large number of senior political, business and community leaders from right around the world.
It’s a critical time to defend free international trade. The US has pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, but the other 11 countries (including Australia) are set to sign the so-called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) deal. Yet there are sceptics and critics of such deals at home and around the world.
At Davos yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rightly warned that despite the challenges faced by the world economy, “protectionism is not the proper answer”. In Australia, it’s unclear yet what Labor leader Bill Shorten’s reaction to the CPTPP will be. He declared the original TPP “dead” when the US pulled out, but the CPTPP still holds significant benefits for Australia.
New modelling by the highly respected Petersen Institute for International Economics suggests that although the overall benefits of the CPTPP may be lower, Australia will do nearly as well as under the larger agreement with the US involved.
The reason is that without the US, Australia will get a bigger share of markets like Japan and Mexico, for products like beef, that it would otherwise have had to share with the US.
Shorten’s response to this good but inconvenient fact (for him) will be telling.
An array of Australian business leaders will also be in attendance, and it’s an important time for Australian business to try to sell Australia as an attractive destination for foreign investment. Australia’s corporate tax rate, at 30%, is now among the highest in the OECD, whereas 15 years ago it was among the lowest. And unless you run a chain of moderately successful smoothie bars and hence have revenues under A$50 million, little tax relief is on the horizon.
The real fireworks from Davos might come from President Trump’s public remarks. But it will be the private remarks between senior Australian business leaders and foreign investors that will likely be the most consequential for the Australian economy in the coming few years.
Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Kidnapped Swiss Christian Freed Amid Mali’s Unrest
The following article reports on the latest news of persecution in Mali, with Al Qaeda linked terrorist groups taking advantage of the unrest in the country.
The articles linked to above are by Compass Direct News and relate to persecution of Christians around the world. Please keep in mind that the definition of ‘Christian’ used by Compass Direct News is inclusive of some that would not be included in a definition of Christian that I would use or would be used by other Reformed Christians. The articles do however present an indication of persecution being faced by Christians around the world.
Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.
THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.
“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.
Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.
“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”
Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.
It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.
Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.
“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”
Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.
“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”
Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.
The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.
Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”
In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.
“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”
Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.
Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.
Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.
Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”
The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)
On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”
Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.
“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”
A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.
Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.
“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”
He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.
“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”
Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”
Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.
Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.
“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”
The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”
It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”
“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.
Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.
“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.
Report from Compass Direct News
Police threaten or detain some 200 house church members who planned to attend.
DUBLIN, October 15 (CDN) — As organizers prepared for the opening of the Third Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization tomorrow in Cape Town, South Africa, Chinese police threatened or detained some 200 delegates who had hoped to attend.
After receiving an invitation to attend the event, house church groups in China formed a selection committee and raised significant funds to pay the expenses of their chosen delegates, a source told Compass. Many delegates, however, were “interviewed” by authorities after they applied to attend the Congress, the source said.
When house church member Abraham Liu Guan and four other delegates attempted to leave China via Beijing airport on Sunday (Oct. 10), authorities refused to allow them through customs, reported the Chinese-language Ming Pao News. Officials detained one delegate and confiscated the passports of the other four until Oct. 25, the closing date of the conference.
China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security had notified border control staff that the participation of Chinese Christians in the conference threatened state security and ordered them not to allow delegates to leave, Liu told U.S.-based National Public Radio (NPR).
Officials also prevented two house church Christians from Baotou City, Inner Mongolia, from leaving the country, and on Oct. 9 placed one of them in a 15-day detention, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported.
When Fan Yafeng, leader of the Chinese Christian Legal Defense Association and winner of the 2009 John Leland Religious Liberty Award, discussed the harassment with NPR on Tuesday (Oct. 12), officials assigned some 20 police officers to keep him under house arrest.
On Wednesday (Oct. 13), approximately 1,000 police officers were stationed at Beijing International Airport to restrain an estimated 100 house church members who planned to leave for the Congress via Beijing, according to CAA.
CAA also said authorities over the past few months had contacted every delegate, from Han Christians in Beijing to Uyghur Christians in Xinjiang, for questioning, and threatened some family members.
Normal church operations were also affected. The Rev. Xing Jingfu from Changsha in Hunan province told NPR that authorities cited the Lausanne Congress when they recently ordered his church to close.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, in a statement issued to NPR, accused the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization of communicating secretively with members of illegal congregations and not issuing an official invitation to China’s state-controlled church.
According to the Ming Pao report, the Lausanne committee said members of the Three-Self Protestant Movement had asked if they could attend. Delegates, however, were required to sign a document expressing their commitment to evangelism, which members of official churches could not do due to regulations such as an upper limit on the number of people in each church, state certification for preachers, and the confinement of preaching to designated churches in designated areas. House church Christians faced no such limitations.
The first such conference was held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974, which produced the influential Lausanne Covenant. The second conference was held in 1989 in Manila. Some 4,000 delegates from 200 countries are expected to attend the third conference in Cape Town.
Progress or Repression?
China watchers said there has been a slight easing of restrictions in recent months, accompanied by a call on Sept. 28 from senior Chinese political advisor Du Qinglin for the government to allow the independent development of the official church. Du made the remarks at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, according to the government-allied Xinhua news agency.
The BBC in August produced a glowing series on the growth of Christianity in China after Chinese authorities gave it unprecedented access to state-sanctioned churches and religious institutions. Religious rights monitor Elizabeth Kendal, however, described this access as part of a propaganda campaign by the Chinese government to reduce criticism of religious freedom policies.
NPR also produced a five-part series on Chinese religions in July. The series attributed the growth of religious adherence to the “collapse of Communist ideology” and pointed out that growth continued despite the fact that evangelism was “still illegal in China today.”
The claims of progress were challenged by an open letter from Pastor Zhang Mingxuan, president of the Chinese Christian House Church Alliance, to Chinese President Hu Jintao on Oct. 1, China’s National Day.
In the letter, published by CAA on Oct. 5, Zhang claimed that Chinese house church Christians respected the law and were “model citizens,” and yet they had become “the target of a group of government bandits … [who] often arrest and beat innocent Christians and wronged citizens.” Further, he added, “House church Christians have been ill-treated simply because they are petitioners to crimes of the government.”
Zhang then listed several recent incidents in which Christians were arrested and sent to labor camps, detained and fined without cause, beaten, interrogated and otherwise abused. He also described the closure or demolition of house churches and the confiscation of personal and church property.
He closed with a mention of Uyghur Christian Alimjan Yimit, “who was sentenced to 15 years in prison because he evangelized among Uyghurs – his very own people.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Elsewhere on island off East Africa, Christians prohibited from worshipping at university.
NAIROBI, Kenya, August 19 (CDN) — Christian university students on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, a predominantly Muslim area off the coast of East Africa, have been denied the right to worship, while on another part of the isle a Christian leader has been jailed.
Sources said evangelist Peter Masanja, a resident of Zanzibar’s southeastern town of Paje, was arrested by security agents sometime in early August. Earlier this year Masanja, a member of the Pentecostal Church in Zanzibar, would invite Christians to his house, as he had made part of his land available for church activities. Area Muslims interpreted it as plans to establish another church there, the sources said.
The rumor angered local residents, and they vowed to prohibit any Christian activities, the sources said.
“It was only after her husband failed to return home that Masanja’s wife knew that there was something amiss,” said a source who requested anonymity. “After several days of searching, reports reached the wife that Masanja had been arrested and imprisoned in Kilimani cell.”
Pastors from Tanzania’s Zanzibar Island sought to meet with prison authorities about Masanja’s arrest, but officials informed them that the person in charge of the prison was away on official business, said Bishop Obeid Fabian, chairman of an association of congregations known as the Fraternal Churches.
“We are asking for prayers for him and his family, that he would be released,” Fabian said.
At Zanzibar University, a private school in Tunguu 18 kilometers (12 miles) from Zanzibar Town, Islamic administrators have denied Christian students freedom of worship while retaining that constitutional right for Muslims, said Samson Zuberi, Christian Union students coordinator.
Three Christian Union student leaders have protested to school officials and threatened to go to court over the discrimination, he said. Although freedom of worship among Christians has long been restricted at the university, the decision to ban it completely caused an outcry. The vice-chancellor’s office on Dec. 28, 2009 issued the order forbidding Christian students from conducting their affairs and meetings on the school campus.
Numbering about 100 at a university with more than 2,500 students, the Christian students say they have felt the administration increasingly discriminating against them. There are two mosques at the university, which is sponsored by an Islamic charity, Dar el Uman Charitable Association, registered in Geneva, Switzerland, according to the school’s Web site.
In an April 12 circular, university Dean of Students Mavua H. Mussa warned those defying worship regulations to seek other learning institutions, saying that the ban on religious activities in lecture theaters, halls of residence or anywhere else on campus was absolute.
Students said the ban violates sections 19(1) and 20(1) of the Zanzibar Constitution of 1984, which provide for freedom of association, including religious groups, free of government control. Articles 19(1) (2) and 20(1) of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania of 1977 provide for the same freedom, they said.
Fabian told Compass by telephone that the students will seek counsel from Christian students at universities in Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, Tanzania.
“We have advised that before they take the case to court, the three Christian Union leaders should travel to get counsel from their fellow students at the universities of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, especially the Christian law students, to get the correct interpretation of the Tanzanian constitution on the right of worship,” Fabian said.
He added that the students – Zuberi, regional Christian Union Student Chairman Ronald R. Urassa and Christian Union Student Secretary Neema Alex Langalli – need to raise US$800 each for the travel.
Similarly, the dress code at the university has caused tensions, sources said, as officials have threatened to expel female Christian students if they do not wear a veil and headscarf, or the Buibui and Hijab. University regulations state that, “For a female dressing, the clothes must cover from head to an ankle.”
Some of the lecturers have put female Christian students out of class if they do not wear the required Islamic dress, sources said.
They also noted that during the current Islamic month of Ramadan, a period of fasting by day, life for Christian students becomes difficult as university regulations forbid them to cook for themselves, and all cafeterias on or near university campuses are closed. The location of the school makes it difficult for Christian students to find meals outside the university cafeteria.
Even if they remain off campus, the conditions and practices of landlords discriminate against Christians, the sources said.
In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, churches face numerous challenges. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.
Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.
Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania might dominate them, and tensions have persisted.
Report from Compass Direct News
New wave of deportations raises concerns for foreigners married to Moroccans.
ISTANBUL, July 1 (CDN) — Moroccan authorities expelled eight more foreign Christians from the country last weekend, bringing the total of deported Christians since March to 128.
Two foreign women married to Moroccan Christians were included in this third wave of deportations since March, raising concerns that local authorities intend to harass the country’s small but growing Protestant community.
“They are all in fear,” a source told Compass, “because this happened to people who are married.”
One of the women, a Lebanese national married to a Moroccan, was diagnosed with cancer last month and is the mother of a 6-year old girl whom she was forced to leave behind.
A Spanish national, Sara Domene, 31, was also deported on Monday (June 28), according to news sources. Domene was working as a language teacher in the Western Sahara, a territory under Moroccan sovereignty.
Authorities called the foreigners to police stations across Morocco on Friday (June 25) and told them they had 48 hours to leave the country on grounds of “threatening public order.”
Other nationals who were forced to leave the country over the weekend came from France, Egypt, Lebanon, Switzerland, Nigeria and Spain.
A source explained that Moroccan authorities are essentially deporting Christians for “proselytism,” which is illegal in Morocco, but in order to justify the deportations they have claimed that the foreigners pose a threat to the state.
In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.
There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.
On June 17, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a U.S. congressional hearing on the ongoing deportations of U.S. citizens and other foreigners from Morocco.
Morocco has expelled about 58 U.S. citizens in the last four months. On Thursday (June 24) authorities informed about 10 U.S. citizens that they had 48 hours to leave the country, but within 24 hours the deportation orders were rescinded.
In a statement after the June 17 hearing, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who co-chairs the Lantos commission, said he would lobby for the U.S. government to withhold funds it has pledged to Morocco if he did not see improvements in the treatment of Christians there.
“I will continue to stay with this issue until a resolution has been reached,” he said. “Should this matter remain unresolved, it is possible that I may offer amendments in the Appropriations committee and on the House floor to restrict U.S. foreign aid from going to Morocco.”
In a letter addressed to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on June 17, Ambassador of Morocco to the United States Aziz Mekouar claimed that the deportations “solely and exclusively targeted proselytism activities, which are clearly and categorically forbidden by the laws of Morocco and the precepts of Islam.”
The ambassador said the Moroccan Penal Code imposes fines and prison sentences for those who “use means of seduction in the aim of undermining a Muslim’s faith or of converting him/her to another religion, either by exploiting his weaknesses or needs, or through the use, to this end, of health or educational establishments, as well as shelters or orphanages.”
Moroccan authorities have failed to provide foreign Christians whom they expelled with documented proof or official charges of their alleged proselytism activities. In his letter, the ambassador said the deportations were preferable to the “difficult ordeal” of incarceration and a trial as part of a criminal procedure against the Christians.
Wolf noted that that among those who were deported or denied reentry were businessmen, educators and humanitarian and social workers, “many of whom had resided in Morocco for over a decade in full compliance with the law. Additionally, those deported were forced to leave the country within two hours of being questioned by authorities, leaving everything behind.”
Christian foreigners who were able to obtain official deportation documents have appealed their cases in the Moroccan courts. The hearings for those cases started in May and are continuing.
Report from Compass Direct News
Slap to religious freedom in Switzerland leads to threat over church bell tower in Turkey.
ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — In response to a Swiss vote banning the construction of new mosque minarets, a group of Muslims this month went into a church building in eastern Turkey and threatened to kill a priest unless he tore down its bell tower, according to an advocacy group.
Three Muslims on Dec. 4 entered the Meryem Ana Church, a Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, and confronted the Rev. Yusuf Akbulut. They told him that unless the bell tower was destroyed in one week, they would kill him.
“If Switzerland is demolishing our minarets, we will demolish your bell towers too,” one of the men told Akbulut.
The threats came in reaction to a Nov. 29 referendum in Switzerland in which 57 percent voted in favor of banning the construction of new minarets in the country. Swiss lawmakers must now change the national constitution to reflect the referendum, a process that should take more than a year.
The Swiss ban, widely viewed around the world as a breach of religious freedom, is likely to face legal challenges in Switzerland and in the European Court of Human Rights.
There are roughly 150 mosques in Switzerland, four with minarets. Two more minarets are planned. The call to prayer traditional in Muslim-majority countries is not conducted from any of the minarets.
Fikri Aygur, vice president of the European Syriac Union, said that Akbulut has contacted police but has otherwise remained defiant in the face of the threats.
“He has contacted the police, and they gave him guards,” he said. “I talked with him two days ago, and he said, ‘It is my job to protect the church, so I will stand here and leave it in God’s hands.’”
Meryem Ana is more than 250 years old and is one of a handful of churches that serve the Syriac community in Turkey. Also known as Syrian Orthodox, the Syriacs are an ethnic and religious minority in Turkey and were one of the first groups of people to accept Christianity. They speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, a language spoken by Christ. Diyarbakir is located in eastern Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.
At press time the tower was standing and the priest was safe, said Jerry Mattix, youth pastor at the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, which is located across a street from Meryem Ana Church.
Mattix said that threats against Christians in Diyarbakir are nothing out of the ordinary. Mattix commonly receives threats, both in the mail and posted on the church’s Internet site, he said.
“We’re kind of used to that,” Mattix said. He added that he has received no threats over the minaret situation but added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.”
Mattix said the people making threats in the area are Muslim radicals with ties to Hezbollah “who like to flex their muscles.”
“We are a major target out here, and we are aware of that,” Mattix said. “But the local police are taking great strides to protect us.”
Mattix said he also has “divine confidence” in God’s protection.
The European Syriac Union’s Aygur said that Christians in Turkey often serve as scapegoats for inflamed local Muslims who want to lash out at Europeans.
“When they [Europeans] take actions against the Muslims, the Syriacs get persecuted by the fanatical Muslims there,” he said.
The threats against the church were part of a public outcry in Turkey that included newspaper editorials characterizing the Swiss decision as “Islamophobia.” One Turkish government official called upon Muslims to divest their money from Swiss bank accounts. He invited them to place their money in the Turkish banking system.
In part, the threats also may reflect a larger and well-established pattern of anti-Christian attitudes in Turkey. A recent study conducted by two professors at Sabanci University found that 59 percent of those surveyed said non-Muslims either “should not” or “absolutely should not” be allowed to hold open meetings where they can discuss their ideas.
The survey also found that almost 40 percent of the population of Turkey said they had “very negative” or “negative” views of Christians. In Turkey, Christians are often seen as agents of outside forces bent on dividing the country.
This is not the first time Akbulut has faced persecution. Along with a constant string of threats and harassment, he was tried and acquitted in 2000 for saying to the press that Syriacs were “massacred” along with Armenians in 1915 killings.
In Midyat, also in eastern Turkey, someone recently dug a tunnel under the outlying buildings of a Syriac church in hopes of undermining the support of the structure.
At the Mor Gabriel Monastery, also near Midyat, there is a legal battle over the lands surrounding the monastery. Founded in 397 A.D., Mor Gabriel is arguably the oldest monastery in use today. It is believed local Muslim leaders took the monastery to court in an attempt to seize lands from the church. The monastery has prevailed in all but one case, which is still underway.
“These and similar problems that are threatening the very existence of the remaining Syriacs in Turkey have reached a very serious and worrying level,” Aygur stated in a press release. “Especially, whenever there is a problem about Islam in the European countries, the Syriacs’ existence in Turkey is threatened with such pressures and aggressions.”
Report from Compass Direct News
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